When Sacheen Littlefeather first met the Academy, in 1973, she was jeered onstage at the Oscars, heckled offstage with alleged “tomahawk chops,” and threatened with arrest and physical harm. A official apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be presented during her visit to the Academy as an invited guest of honour over fifty years later.
This will take place during an evening of contemplation at the Academy Museum. “I was in shock. The message from the Academy was first privately delivered to Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), 75, in June. “I never believed I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, feeling this,” Littlefeather says. In 1973, I was by myself when I was at the podium.
At that time, Marlon Brando asked a 26-year-old Littlefeather to accept the best actor prize (for his work in The Godfather) on his behalf, and it was an instantly iconic moment in Oscars and live television history. She was obligated to follow Brando’s instructions not to touch the statuette and to limit her comments to 60 seconds (an order from show producer Howard Koch, who told Littlefeather minutes before the award presentation that he had security on hand to arrest her if she went past time).
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Littlefeather knew she wouldn’t have time to read from the actor’s eight written pages of prepared remarks, so she just replied, “[Brando] very sadly cannot accept this very generous award.” “And the reasons for this include the treatment of American Indians today by the film business,” the speaker continues, “excuse me, on television in movie reruns, as well as with current incidents at Wounded Knee
The audience starts to boo. The American Indian Movement had occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee a month prior to the ceremony to protest the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans; at the time of Littlefeather’s televised appearance at the Oscars, the standoff was the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed media blackout. Littlefeather’s 60-second cry for justice was met with swift and ongoing outrage from individuals. Her identity and integrity were questioned after the event, she claims.
The rumours were so pervasive that in 2012, Dennis Miller made fun of Elizabeth Warren by comparing her to “that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar.” She claims that John Wayne had to be stopped from storming the stage to physically attack her while in the wings. Littlefeather claims that the federal government threatened to shut down any discussion shows or projects that featured her on the broadcast. Littlefeather had been in a few movies before her historic moment.
In the Academy’s letter of apology, dated June 18, then-president David Rubin stated, “The harassment you experienced as a result of this comment was unwarranted and wrong. “Irreparable damage has been done to your career in our field and to the emotional weight you have endured. Too long has passed without anyone recognising the courage you shown. We apologise profusely and express our heartfelt admiration for this.
The apology will be read in full during the Academy Museum celebration of Littlefeather on September 17. Littlefeather will take part in a discussion with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. As part of the museum’s continuous attempts to examine the group’s past and establish its future through a more comprehensive, inclusive perspective, it was Runningwater who first contacted Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy.
Bird called me, obviously over the phone. As a joke, Littlefeather says, “He tried to send smoke signals, but they wouldn’t fit underneath the door. In order to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast, which was released in June, and a visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects, which will be published next month, Runningwater and fellow Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae developed a relationship with the lifelong activist.
A land acknowledgement from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/Southern California) will be included in An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which is open to the public and can be reserved online. Traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Oklahoma) will serve as the evening’s emcee along with Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart.